December 8, 2022
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ColumnsClassy Politics

Rampant consumerism harms all classes

The first time I heard Frank Ocean’s 2013 single “Super Rich Kids,” from the album Channel Orange, I thought it was an ode to the lavish — if mundane — lifestyles of ‘rich kids.’

However, after listening with an older, more critical ear, the song has revealed itself for what it is: a sympathetic diatribe against the vapidity, dissatisfaction and insecurity that are characteristic of the stereotypical child of wealth. Take, for example, lyrics like “A million one, a million two/ A hundred more will never do” and “The maids come around too much/ Parents ain’t around enough … Super rich kids with nothing but fake friends.” These lyrics suggest a feeling of inauthenticity in the culture of the richa desire for a real connection, whether that be with parents or friends. This is a far cry from the common conception that the lifestyle of the wealthy is the premium. Instead, these lyrics suggest a kind of spiritual alienation among ‘super rich kids.’

To give a more concrete example, a recent YouTube trend, “How Much is Your Outfit Worth?” highlights precisely what I’m talking about. In these videos, vloggers will find a group of young hypebeasts and ask them to explain how much their outfit is worth. Yet, the fact that the hypebeasts — who wear outfits costing upwards of $15,000 — have memorized the prices of each item suggests to me that this streetwear culture is less about fashion and more about conspicuous consumption: the act of displaying discretionary income through the consumption of luxury items. Here, the luxury items act as the medium through which human value is assessed. It goes without saying that these items were undoubtedly purchased with daddy’s credit card.

As subjects of a society that both implicitly and explicitly places upon us an injunction to pursue and revere material wealth, it is important to recognize that the benefits provided by luxury are more fickle than we would like to believe. That instead, they betray a deep insecurity that says, “Because I do not have an attractive personality on my own, I need this $15,000 watch to prove to myself and others that I am worthy of admiration.”

Even Adam Smith — the thinker praised by advocates of free-market capitalism as ‘The Father of Economics’ — in his 1759 treatise, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, regards the pursuit of wealth and the social distinctions that they bring as ‘trifling and contemptible.’ Indeed, speaking allegorically about a person who wishes to fit himself in the fashions of the wealthy through a lifetime of toil, Smith warns, “Through the whole of his life he pursues the idea of certain artificial and elegant repose which he may never arrive at, for which he sacrifices a real tranquility which that is at all times within his power, and which, if in the extremity of old age he should at last attain to it, he will find to be in no respect preferable to that humble security and contentment which he had abandoned for it.”

This is what rampant consumerism has done to us. On the one hand, we have working people who can barely make ends meet and feel the feelings of shame and societal alienation that go along with it. While, on the other hand, we have rich people who display their own self-alienation through their reliance to define their human value in terms of material value.